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Mexico's Santa Fe potters turn away from lead to save health

Aid groups help the artisans keep alive their tradition while giving up the toxic glaze.

January 27, 2008|Oscar Avila | Chicago Tribune

SANTA FE DE LA LAGUNA, MEXICO — As Nicolas Fermin tends to the clay vases and pots in his kiln, he is keeping alive the artisan traditions that the Purepecha Indians have built for generations along the shores of Lake Patzcuaro.

But about a decade ago, Fermin's family inherited another legacy of this art form.

Fermin's wife, Maria del Rosario Lucas, suffered a miscarriage, as had many women in her community. Warned that the lead glaze of their pottery might be to blame, they tested their toddler, Dulce.

She had lead levels eight times the norm.

As U.S. consumers worry about lead in imports from China and elsewhere, some communities beyond America's borders struggle with the dangers of lead in the products they create themselves. Here in this picturesque corner of Mexico, a nonprofit group called Barro Sin Plomo (Clay Without Lead) is trying to persuade the Purepecha people and other Mexican producers to revise their deadly customs.

In tandem with a Mexican government effort, the program has helped Fermin and hundreds of artisans, mainly in western Michoacan, begin switching from lead to alternative glazes.

Progress has been slow, but their new products are being marketed as lead-free to tourists and U.S. vendors.

"Our people say we owe our lives to lead. Because of lead, we send our children to school or build our homes," said Fermin, 46, as he drew designs on a vase with a pencil. "But after this crash in our lives, we knew we had to do something different."

Change hasn't come easy for communities whose handicrafts date to the 1500s. At that time, a Spanish bishop named Vasco de Quiroga promoted the preservation of native artwork around Lake Patzcuaro when most Spaniards were snuffing it out.

A drive through the villages around the lake reveals families selling hand-carved wooden furniture, guitars and masks in addition to the pottery of Santa Fe.

For generations, potters have used lead to give their objects a shiny glaze that appeals to buyers. But the North American Free Trade Agreement placed restrictions on importing items with lead from Mexico.

The Mexican government launched a campaign to wean artisans off lead but, from 1991 to 2001, only about 20 potters nationwide made the switch, said Marta Turok, an anthropologist who directs social programs for the National Fund for the Promotion of Handicrafts, a Mexican government agency.

The potters resisted, even though nearly everyone had a friend or relative devastated by the effects of lead. Almost all potters work in their home, exposing their families to lead dust. Sometimes children drink water contaminated with lead residue.

Lead can harm nearly every organ in the body, causing neurological damage in children and kidney damage and infertility in adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I tell the artisans, lead doesn't kill you overnight. It attacks your kidneys, it attacks your bones, your womb, your brain," Turok said. "Then it all catches up with you."

The Mexican government eventually teamed with the Connecticut-based nonprofit Aid to Artisans, which secured funding from foundations and the U.S. government. They launched Barro Sin Plomo in 2003.

Aid to Artisans worked with U.S. potters to develop an alternative glaze that would replicate the aesthetic effects of lead without the harms. The substitute did not function well in the same temperatures, so consultants had to retrofit ovens.

Herlinda Morales, 38, said her cousin's baby was born with a deformed arm, and blood tests found she had high lead levels too. Even so, Morales' parents resisted her eventual switch from a lead-centered technique that had been in their family for generations.

"It's tough to change, yes, but it's for our own good," she said.

Project organizers now say they must win over new participants by proving that lead-free pottery makes economic sense. Morales says her family must subsist on their pottery or follow her brothers who are working illegally in Oregon.

Victor Aguila, who directs the Barro Sin Plomo project, said he hoped to develop a market for lead-free pottery geared to U.S. consumers. One of Morales' black candelabra, for example, goes for $70 in high-end stores, a healthy sum in this village of mainly dirt roads.

A for-profit arm of Barro Sin Plomo markets the products at U.S. trade shows, takes Internet orders and even picks up products and delivers payments in remote Mexican villages.

In 2005, the project won an award from the World Bank for innovative development efforts. Barro Sin Plomo is trying to expand nationwide, and Aid to Artisans hopes to replicate the program in Turkey, Uzbekistan and other developing nations.

Aguila said 2007 sales were on pace to reach record levels, thanks to vendors such as Art Effect in Chicago's Lincoln Park, which has sold the project's platters, bowls and pitchers for years. The items have been lead-free since 2003.

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